Anyone who’s lived through an Ohio summer knows that it can get brutally hot during the year’s middle months. But when you’re a high school football player who just wants to play in the season’s opening game against your crosstown rivals, you’ll fight through it — every practice, workout and two-a-day — to prove your worth.
And I was fighting. All my youthful energy and passion was bursting as I flew around the field at maximum effort, trying to show I deserved a starting spot. Still, though, something wasn’t clicking. My sophomore summer was slipping by, and the field felt further away every day.
Admittedly, mercurial teenager that I was, I got frustrated. And my coach noticed. After practice one day, he pulled me aside. Little did I know, he was about to tell me three words that would change the course of my life.
“Remember, Steve: preparation is everything.”
At that moment, it hit me. Sure, I was doing the job, hitting the basic requirements and everything. But I wasn’t really putting in the extra time and effort. I was doing the same amount as everyone else on the team, and I was expecting to get better results than them. I wasn’t studying the game, ensuring I was out-preparing everyone else, thinking through every play. I was doing just okay, and that’s why I was playing just okay. To be great, I realized, I had to do great work — all the time.
To this day, Coach Sines’ advice has stuck with me: through my collegiate football career and well after my work as a technology executive began. My kids are sick of hearing me say it, but it has truly served as a blueprint for success throughout my life.
I know I’m not the first person to say that preparation is important, but I think it’s wisdom that needs to be embodied now more than ever. Because when your preparation is well executed, you’ll be equipped for anything and get results that truly stand out.
No one needs to be told that the last two years and change have been incredibly challenging. It doesn’t matter your industry or your product; everyone has had to find new ways forward amidst massive global upheaval and change.
That’s why preparation is more critical than ever. Simply put, repeatable success comes from envisioning every possible scenario well ahead of time. That way, whatever plays out, you’ll know how to respond. You’ll know what to do. Early in the pandemic, we had to think through scenarios that seemed truly impossible in 2019 – but now, we have an even bigger playbook to draw on.
This year, my team has a mantra: “Superior preparation rarely tastes defeat.” It’s an old business adage that sums up my coach’s advice, but with an extra emphasis on preparation that I think is really critical right now. Our world’s state of constant change and transformation isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, so it’s up to us to establish a “new normal” when it comes to work. It’s up to us to make superior preparation table-stakes for ourselves and our teams.
Superior Preparation in Action
Tom Brady already knows everything that might happen when he drops back to pass. If the safeties drop back, if a linebacker attacks, or if a defensive lineman dives inside; in every situation, he already knows how he will respond. His incredible amount of preparation means that 95 percent of his work is done well before he hits the field.
Can your team and your business say the same? Have you thought through every possible scenario so that when roadblocks or challenges arise, you know what paths you can take?
On my team, we think about preparation at three different levels:
- Know Your Customers — Consider your customers’ goals, strategies and potential obstacles. Are you examining every route that could get them where they need to go? Is their challenge a ‘You’ problem or a ‘Them’ problem?
- Know Your Organization — Think about your technological practices and processes, about your overall approach, about your key factors. Is your company navigating its own systems efficiently and effectively? Are you taking the proper actions underneath the surface, so that things don’t hit the fan during crunch time?
- Know Your Team — The team level is where trust, alignment and motivations are all built and optimized. If you’re working as a cohesive unit, using each other’s strengths and moving in the same direction, solutions to the above problems will fall into place.
This last point is critical and the one I drive home to my team every day. Preparation means little if you’re doing it alone. More so, I think every successful person knows that their “success” is largely attributable to the people around them. At the end of the day, superior preparation can taste defeat if it’s done in a vacuum.
Many people might think high school would be better if they could return with the lessons they’ve learned today. Maybe that’s true. I like to think I’d be a better football player the second time around. Mostly, I’m grateful that I had a coach who saw enough in me to ask me the hard questions and pushed me where I needed to grow. 30 years later, I’m still living my life by these words – and, if I’m lucky, inspiring someone else in the same way Coach Sines inspired me.